A Response: Double Blind | Presented by Darebin Arts Speakeasy and Stephanie Lake Company

February 17, 2016 § Leave a comment

Dance is not theatre. While that seems blindingly obvious as a statement, in an age still struggling to come to terms with post-structuralism, it’s an important distinction to make. The two are often confused and hybrid pieces of ‘dance theatre’ sometimes crop up, though none have been altogether successful* — unless you consider Nicola Gunn’s Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster ‘dance theatre’ (I don’t), which was a delight; although that was a solo performance with continuous text and narrative, so perhaps it’s not quite the same anyway.

Despite the ‘don’t-tell-me-what-to do’ attitude currently plaguing art, there are codes of discourse and traditions that inform artists’ construction of and ability to conceive both dance and theatre pieces—although there have undoubtedly been influences that blur the lines—whether we like it or not. Badiou makes a quaint distinction between the two in his Handbook of Inaesthetics. Broadly speaking, he discusses theatre as an event or an assemblage of materials that is “itself a child, in part of politics and the state, in part of the circulation of desire between the sexes,” whereas dance, he says, is the interplay between earth and air. Here, the dancer is a conduit between the two, with the body “incessantly renam[ing] the earth” by virtue of its movement and relation to it. He calls dance “a metaphor for thought…the image of flight”: very poetic.

While these characterisations are somewhat prescriptive, there is something that resonates: theatre, comprised of “a text, a place, some bodies, voices, costumes, lights, a public,” all gathered together for an event; and dance, with its interrogation of what a body can do and of what it is capable; the limits thereby creating the aforementioned air and earth dichotomy. Given these distinctions and how simple it is to mount an argument that the two art forms’ Being are actually vice versa, it’s easy to see how companies rationalise ‘dance theatre’ — although, it must be said again, often unsuccessfully; but whether or not that is to do with their inability to adhere to Badiou or not remains to be seen.

This is a preamble to my response to Stephanie Lake Company’s Double Blind, and in many ways characterises my entry into dance itself. That is to say, my entry to dance is in relation to theatre—for better or for worse—via theory. This jargon also goes to elucidating and explicating some of my shortcomings in terms of background and technical knowhow about dance in general. And so this, along with my experience, is the way in which I am approaching this piece.

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Copyright Stephanie Lake Company

The show draws upon psychological experiments from the 1960s for inspiration—ergo double blind—and this sets in motion the piece’s exploration of bodies, limits and dichotomies (sorry to use that word twice in a couple of paragraphs). This theme is followed through in the simple costumes, which my companion observed looked like patients from the back and doctors from the front. I was less convinced that it was this thought-out but there was clearly some method in the medical blue, as well as the large split running up the back of the shirts, which was tied together like a patients gown.

The set was a simple, white square, with a large lighting rig suspended overheard and running around the parameter: along this rig were a number of small lights, which resembled show lights running along the front of a music theatre stage. To one side was a large sound desk, behind which was the Composer, Sound Designer & Operator, Robin Fox. After a moment’s darkness, two performers—read as male and female, though wearing very similar costumes—appeared, holding audio jacks, each one firmly gripping it in their hand, with their thumbs placed on the output (input?). This was accompanied by a whirring white noise. The performers seemed cautious of one another but not fearful. The man began to experiment by touching the woman. She holds his gaze. As his hand touches her skin, the audio is interrupted and gives a feedback squeak. The more he touches her skin, the louder the response. He begins to flick and graze her and the audio reacts accordingly. She seems impassive, though aware of what’s happening, until she lashes out and touches him instead. This moment of comedy gives a menacing edge to the proceedings, as it sets the two up in opposition, despite them both attempting to work out what was happening. The audio enabled the audience to ‘hear a touch’; this is what contact sounds like the piece suggests. The marrying of music and dance is made explicit by the immediate feedback — diminished when they touch clothes, explosive when they slap foreheads. This sequence also introduces the audience to machines and begins its interrogation of the limits of humans and technology.

The show continued to expose and explore limits, dualities and spectrums. From man and woman, to human and machine, potentially doctor and patient, and even subject and instrument, Double Blind challenges the audience to rethink boundaries. In so doing, it confirms some and shifts others. To unpack that a little more, let’s consider the aforementioned sequence. With a current running through the audio cables and into the performers’ bodies, and then making that manifest in the audio, the production positions us to see them as a continuation of the machine. It then complicates this relationship by engaging them both in competition, each vying to touch each other the most, with moments of unexpected movement and comedy — would two machines do a similar thing? Perhaps but there is something unpredictable about the performers, which is arguably missing in a machine. As the boundaries between performance, performer, art, dance and machine continue to blur, productions like this serve the audience by helping them consider these questions.

Dance is the closest art form to being considered a ‘sport’. At least the training, diligence, hard work, physicality and movement are readily understood as being sport-like. Sports people too are often compared to machines; when an athlete reaches the top of their game, there is little to compare them to but something inhuman. In general, it is often foisted upon us that man is simply a machine—our biology pre-programmed, our actions predictable, our desires easily manipulated—in the case of sports stars, it’s simply a matter of preparation and drilling; the becoming-machine.

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Copyright Prudence Upton

This conception is peculiar because in many ways, this is the becoming the anti-machine — there is in fact no purpose for this intense specialisation, it serves no function, and inherent to any machine is a predetermined objective; there is no reason for someone to become the best basketball player, cricketer, footballer, and so on, unless of course, you consider the enhanced chance of reproduction that could come with being an elite athlete as an acceptable driving force, in which case, sure, but it’s my understanding that there is something else driving them — perhaps there is some kind of drive to perfect a physical activity? But even then I am not convinced. When we think of a machine we should really consider the mediocre, everyday men and women. The ones who act as drones and cogs, controlled by the mechanistic state. Instead, we consider the elite human the machine. If it’s both then man truly is a machine. But there is something about Double Blind that seems to suggest otherwise. Dance enables us to explore our mechanistic qualities and in so doing affirms our human-ness.

Returning to Badiou’s definition of theatre and dance, rather than being a political event, this show felt like an exploration of these boundaries. The series of movements were experiments to test limits. At times the performers were pitted against each other in a round robin of bouts, which was accompanied by scientific commentary explaining an experiment whereby some laboratory rats were given food and some were not, and the effects of this. In another sequence, one performer guided another, standing over him and directed him with her hand; he in turn took the lead and guided her (hand with his head), and at times they went in exactly opposite directions. Another saw the four performers behave like machines in a conveyer belt, each one influencing and informing the next along the line, the movements imbuing them with a robotic quality. However, as with every sequence, it was when they were most mechanical, that it was apparent that they were most human.

In a particularly effective routine, one of the male performers came out and was instructed to stand in a particular way—the mumbled dialogue and repartee proving that the performers had a gift for comic timing and a natural acting style—while she brought out a metronome. A dance was then performed to a slow beat, then faster, then faster, and finally, as fast as the metronome would go. The simplicity of the conceit ensured its success and the performance highlighted the rigorous precision needed in dance; however, the exact moment of becoming-machine, that is, the fastest (and therefore the best) was the exact moment that the performer exploded out of the routine’s constraints. It developed into something new. The ability to adapt in such a way is (at least for now) a uniquely human (as opposed to machine) characteristic and Double Blind exemplified this in the way the sequences established, grew, and shifted: it evolved.

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Copyright Pippa Samaya

In another sequence, the performers (and a ‘computer voice’ voice-over) asked for the audience’s participation. In a familiar experiment, they asked us not to think of a white bear. And to clap when we did. Predictably, we all sporadically clapped for the minute-long ‘experiment’. Is this an example of being programed? In becoming part of the performance did we become part of the machine? This is where the performance dipped into theatre, and that theatre assemblage Badiou talks about is more obvious. Through the use of those theatrical elements, costumes, voice, bodies, and importantly audience, the production creates an event. For the duration of that minute we are all involved in a moment of theatre rather than dance. Instead of trying to combine the two into ‘dance theatre’, Double Blind instead incorporates small sequences of theatre into an otherwise dance piece. The comedic mumbling before the metronome dance is another example of this. Perhaps the success of this comes from its considered inclusion, in its humble offering—rather than attempting to make a grandiose theatrical sequence or anything similar—and its clear thematic cohesion with the rest of the show. Perhaps these distinctions really are arbitrary. At the same time, I do feel like an argument could be made for this experiment to be the most theatrical part of the show; it certainly felt that way.

Lake’s choreography is at times beautiful and other times violent — sometimes both at once. One alarming routine involved a dancer experimenting with the audio cable. Every time he touches the end an electrifying noise exploded in the space. Each time the noise was heard the other three performers began to animate. From lying ‘dead’ on the ground, with every surge of power they started to get up and walk towards the source. Like lightning zombies or Frankenstein’s monster they got closer and closer, while the ignorant other played with his toy. When they were almost upon him he noticed. And by using the surging power as a weapon he began to thrust the cord at them, charging it each time, and they seemed to electrify backwards. It was visceral and affecting. While the noise itself was enough to elicit a reaction, the visible manifestation of the violence on the performers’ bodies was enough to make the audience tense up, and twist in fear. For me, the routine called forth the idea of man making machines and unknowingly powering them, and their impending assault on his control over them. But I may be a little preoccupied with the rise of AI and the singularity.

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Copyright Justin Ridler

The music, both composition and operation, was integral to the show. Fox was present at all times and the soundscape built the scientific, mechanical world perfectly. At times I found myself questioning if the white noise and feedback was programed or happening live. I wasn’t sure if it was an aural magic trick or an unpredictable element of the show. When the body touching feedback happened in time with the music for example, I found myself wondering if this was well choreographed or just pre-edited into the sound design. I suspect the former. This participation—both from the performers into the sound design, and the operator as performer—added to Double Blind’s thesis about blurring lines.

At the end of the day, I am unfamiliar with dance as an art form. But by entering the conversation via theatre, while taking a detour though theory, I have attempted to explain my experience of the show. My technical knowhow is limited but the performers seemed to embrace this particular style of dance and function effectively as an ensemble. The choreography was stylish and idiosyncratic. There is always something sexual in dance, for me, and I cannot help but read a piece in terms of men and women and their bodies. That was no different here. I relished the (seemingly) calculated strength of the female performers and the way both sexes encountered each other, helped each other but also competed. It was exciting to watch them collide and this was the spark for the show’s energy. And again, when seeing the range of sexuality—from a lack thereof, to intense—at work in Double Blind, I was most reminded about what makes us human.

Choreographer – Stephanie Lake
Composer, Sound Designer & Operator – Robin Fox
Dancers: Alisdair Macindoe, Alana Everett, Amber Haines and Kyle Page
Lighting Designer – Bosco Shaw
Costume Designer – Harriet Oxley
Production Manager – Glenn Dulihanty
Producer – Freya Waterson

*It was pointed out that reference to dance theatre without mentioning Pina Bausch is an oversight. That’s probably correct. A particular favourite of mine is Cafe Muller. 

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